Keeping participants engaged and focused is a universal challenge in professional learning and development. At the Learning 2023 conference, Nisha Abraham, Engageli’s Learning Development Specialist, addressed this challenge with the director of professional development of one of Engageli’s partners, a large insurance company. The following article explores key takeaways from the content covered in the session.
Understanding Attention Span in Learning
Attention span is a complex and often debated topic in the learning sciences. How long can a person stay focused during training or learning sessions? Academic research on the topic varies widely - some studies cite an average attention span of 20 minutes, some 7 minutes, and even one as few as 8.5 seconds!
A 2010 controlled study aimed to measure student attention span during a 1-hour lecture. The learners reported lapses in their attention using clickers. Rather than losing focus every 10 minutes, the study found a more complex pattern. Learners experienced short lapses in attention as early as 30 seconds into the presentation, and then repeatedly at intervals like four to five minutes, seven to nine minutes, and so on.
Whether attention declines after minutes or seconds, it’s clear that maintaining active participation and engagement in training and online learning is challenging. There are a number of strategies and best practices in the field for instructors to try.
One approach is known as the ‘Seven Minute Rule’. This rule suggests that every seven minutes or less, learners should engage in some form of interactive activity. This could be a quick chat, working in small-group sessions, or answering a poll. Getting learners into a two-way relationship with facilitators or peers helps them stick with the session longer.
Types of Attention
Research has shown that there are three types of attention:
1. Sustained Attention: The ability to focus on one activity for a long period of time.
2. Selective Attention: The ability to focus on one thing in particular while there are many other distractions around.
3. Divided Attention: The ability to focus on multiple tasks at the same time. This usually results in being less productive at both tasks.
Each type of attention plays a unique role in different circumstances, and the span of each varies from person to person. In learning environments, sustained and selective attention are key. When learners apply sustained and selective attention, they are more likely to absorb information and make fewer mistakes.
Sustained and selective attention also help students maintain their focus through distractions, which are inevitable in any learning environment. This leads to an important question: how do facilitators help learners apply sustained and selective attention during their virtual learning sessions?
Improving Attention Through Active Learning
The controlled study from earlier might point to an answer. Researchers compared two groups of learners while tracking their lapses in attention. The first group of learners got direct lecture instruction with no social components, and the second group received active learning with regular discussions and demonstrations.
The study revealed that fewer attention span breaks occurred during the discussions and demonstrations than during lecture periods. The active and social learning methods engaged and refreshed the attention of the second group of learners.
The Power of Social and Collaborative Learning
Social and collaborative learning - a type of active learning - is an educational approach that emphasizes the importance of social interaction and using groups to enhance learning through working together. It is based on the idea that learning is inherently a social activity and that knowledge is constructed through interactions within a community of learners.
Social learning requires actively bringing the social and cognitive presences together to engage in the learning process. It is an effective solution to maintaining sustained attention and engagement of learners.
Social Learning in Action
To put this into practice at the Learning 2023 conference, the presenters then did a Think-Pair-Share activity with session attendees. For 5 minutes, the attendees thought about the question “what is social and collaborative learning?”, discussed it with a partner, and then shared their answers with the wider audience. Examples of social and collaborative learning shared at the session included:
• Communities of practice
• Collaborative projects
• Using interactive tools like whiteboards
• Building community before starting training so that people feel social connection
• Bringing in leadership and senior employees to share knowledge with newer employees
Following the Think-Pair-Share, one audience member raised their hand and said they get nervous when they rely on peers to share their knowledge during training, because they worry participants might get the wrong information. The audience demonstrated social learning in action by responding with several ways that they manage that concern in their trainings:
• One person uses those times as examples to show people what not to do.
• Another person uses knowledgeable peers in training sessions, but makes sure to vet them first by preparing them and reviewing their presentations.
• A third person creates the design of the session and then works with the subject matter expert to add in the content, but still make sure it aligns with expectations.
Seven Methods of Social and Collaborative Learning
There are many ways to implement social and collaborative learning in training and learning sessions. Below are seven methods, along with an example of each:
1. Sharing Knowledge: This involves the exchange of information and insights among learners. For example, in a training session, participants might be encouraged to share their real-world experiences on a topic.
2. Skills and Resources Among Group Members: This method focuses on the various skill sets within a group. For instance, in a project team, one member might have excellent research skills and another might be a strong presenter. Combining these skills and resources improves the overall quality and efficiency of the group.
3. Allowing for Peer-to-Peer Teaching and Learning: Peer-to-peer interactions facilitate a deeper understanding of the material. An example of this could be a 'teach-back' session, where learners take turns explaining concepts to each other.
4. Collaborative Learning Techniques: These techniques involve working together to solve problems, complete tasks, or develop projects. An example is a group case study analysis, where each member contributes to discussing the case, brainstorming solutions, and forming a response.
5. Critical Thinking: This method encourages learners to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information rather than just memorizing it. An example might be a debate or a roleplay exercise, where learners must consider different viewpoints and question assumptions.
6. Self-Reflection: This involves participants reflecting on their own learning experiences, understanding their strengths and areas for improvement. For example, after a group activity, learners might write a reflective journal entry discussing what they learned, how they contributed, and how they could improve in the future.
7. Communication and Collaboration: Effective communication and the ability to work well with others are key to collaborative learning. An example here could be a group project where team members must regularly communicate, coordinate their efforts, and resolve conflicts to achieve a common goal.
Social and Collaborative Learning Online
While the benefits are clear, it is difficult to incorporate social and collaborative learning effectively in virtual sessions. At the Learning 2023 conference, the presenters asked the audience to share what is working and not working for them in incorporating social and collaborative learning into their training sessions.
Difficulties of Online Social and Collaborative Learning:
• Breakout rooms for small-group work are isolating and challenging to manage and monitor.
• Many online platforms are not accessible for all learners.
• It is often challenging to see the engagement levels of learners.
• There is a lack of data provided in online sessions beyond simple attendance.
• Learners are frequently disengaged and lack participation.
Benefits of Online Social and Collaborative Learning:
• Online training offers more flexibility.
• Companies are able to conduct more training at a lower cost.
• Online social learning allows for connections across locations and departments.
Engageli Brings Collaborative Learning to Insurance Training
Prior to 2020, a leading U.S. insurance company conducted 95% of its employee training in person. This allowed for engaging and collaborative sessions, but came at a high cost and limited frequency due to the need to fly employees to central locations. The onset of the pandemic required a rapid switch to online training in just a single week, but the company faced significant challenges.
During the first year of online training, the company made use of the tools they already had on hand. As a financial institution, they were bound by strict compliance regulations that made downloading tools and effective communication and collaboration difficult.
They initially relied on a combination of Zoom for video conferencing, Microsoft Teams for chat, and a range of external tools for whiteboards, polls, and other collaboration activities. Cobbling together training tools was difficult for facilitators and learners alike, less effective, and fell short in critical areas like data analytics and accessibility.
A year into these challenges, the head of learning and development asked the company’s procurement department to find a better solution for online training. This search led to the discovery of Engageli, a purpose-built platform designed specifically for learning.
Engageli stood out above other tools because its browser-based platform offered a built-in suite of features made to make training effective and simple. The large insurance company ran a pilot on an ‘Engagelified’ training session to experience Engageli for themselves. This led them to implement a year-long trial, which is currently ongoing.
Engageli allowed the insurance company to implement social and collaborative learning anywhere and anytime. With Engageli’s patented tables, employees could collaborate effectively in small groups, fostering greater connection compared to isolated breakout rooms. The browser-based platform was easily accessible for employees no matter their location, despite the company’s strict compliance regulations.
Engageli integrated all of the collaboration tools in one place, eliminating the need to switch platforms and tabs to access polls, whiteboards, and share documents. Moreover, Engageli provided real-time and post-training engagement data in multiple forms, allowing for facilitators to go beyond attendance and better understand employee participation.
At each step of the way, Engageli’s partner success and learning and teaching teams partnered with the company to help them develop the implementation plan and assess metrics.
If you're interested in seeing firsthand how Engageli can support social and collaborative learning at your organization, check out our product tour.